By John Lee Pendall
Out of every view I’ve ever heard—from Adam and Eve to the earth is flat—the hardest one for me to swallow was, “Everything’s okay.”
My gut response is to shoot back, “Everything is definitely not okay.” But then, I reply to myself, “It’s okay to feel that way.” That shuts me up, which is an astonishingly difficult thing to do. At this point in my life, I’m kind of an After Buddhist—a member of that cohort who rode the Vehicles all over the map and then crashed them into a porta potty. Crawling from that sludge, the first After Buddhist insight is, “Ah fuck, I’m still me.”
I lifted the loose-fitting moniker, After Buddhist from Stephen Batchelor’s book, After Buddhism, but After Buddhism is still about, well, Buddhism, and the people who dig it still consider themselves Buddhists—albeit Secular ones. But what I’m talking about is an altogether different sort of critter.
I know a few After Buddhists, and we’re all different. We have different views, interests, and backgrounds. We have different goals. The common thread is the shared experience of having gone through it—the it being Buddhism. We find ourselves belched out of Buddhism not necessarily because we’re disenchanted by it or rebelling against it, but as a natural consequence of the Buddhist views we’ve held and practices we’ve done.
It feels less like leaving Buddhism, and more like Buddhism leaving us.
So, I guess the porta potty metaphor isn’t totally spot on. It’s kinda like taking a train cross-country and then, while you’re taking a leak, the train leaves without you. You see a multitude of shaven heads smiling and waving goodbye, their robes flapping cheerily in the breeze as they lean out open windows to call back to you a host of well-wishes. You see some friends on there, too; Dharma companions who’ve always seemed more capable and put-together than you.
As the Dharma train’s chugging fades in the desert air, and the Refuge whistle drones out a lonesome, “Be a light unto yourself!” you’re left standing awkwardly on the platform, as the old familiar indecisive silence settles in. “Where do I go from here?” It doesn’t matter; you take yourself with you everywhere. The Dharma Desert isn’t totally barren. All of us here managed to hold onto tidbits of realization, the things we found to be the gist of all the teachings. And we still have the methods; we’ll always have the methods.
To sum up the heart of it all, to hold onto just one ounce of truth, it would be: “To wish things to be otherwise is the cause of all affliction.” Anger, anxiety, envy, jealousy, greed, sadness, grief, despair—try to imagine any of those emotions surviving without that desire, the desire for things to be different. Without that, they evaporate. The other teachings—the seemingly endless stream of data crossing thousands of years and millions of words—address the annoying questions people asked in response to that lesson.
“If we wish things to be other than they are, how are they really?”
“Impermanent and dependently arisen.”
“Why can’t we see that?”
“Why are we ignorant?”
On and on, with teachers and philosophers reworking the same issues over and over again as the Buddhadharma toured the earth. Skillful means—what a crock. If ya really want to excel at practice, don’t do what I did. Instead, shut up, do the work, and stop asking stupid questions because, if you do ask, you’ll get stupid answers that just raise even more questions.
If you can’t do that, then you’ll eventually be assembling your own wigwam or hogan next door in the Dharma Desert. Or you’ll slowly morph into a Facebook Buddhist troll of some kind, cursed to debate the finer points of dead philosophies for all eternity, and pissing everyone off in the process.
Simple truths are the lightest carry. “It’s okay,” is a truth for those who want to travel light—it’s the antidote for wanting things to be other than they are. And how are things? No, they’re not impermanent or dependently arisen. They aren’t empty. I mean, sure, they are, but I think those are unnecessary abstractions that just muddy the waters.
If you’re aiming for enlightenment, then sure, go that route. I’ll tip my hat to you as you whizz by on the Dharma train. But if you’re just looking for a little well-being, or striving to feel comfortable being yourself in a world that demands you to be so much more (or less) than that, then those specifics are unnecessary. Things are just as they are. Right now, take a look around and within: that’s the way things are. If there’s affliction, then there’s affliction. If there isn’t, then there isn’t. If I am, I am; if I’m not, then I’m not. There’s a quiet elegance to it, really, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to put into practice.
Acceptance is easy when things are good, when we’ve got our shit together. But we all begin practice as walking catastrophes.
I couldn’t accept acceptance, so I struggled to change myself into someone I could accept, and Buddhism was more than happy to comply with that struggle—with its slew of methods and views designed to assuage suffering and counteract unskillful behavior. But it’s fake. It’s an indirect path to acceptance, settling the mind enough so that it can finally accept acceptance as a valid way of life. But the danger is in getting distracted by all those “skillful means,” and taking them as ends unto themselves.
That temptation proved too enticing for me to ever ignore. That’s why Buddhism rode off without me, but not before relieving me off all my penchants for escapism. The direct way—the way that doesn’t involve means of any kind—starts with accepting non-acceptance, and being mindful of acceptance and non-acceptance throughout the day. This doesn’t do anything at first. In fact, it seems to just spotlight how screwed up we are. But, over time, we start to see our afflicted metacognitions soften.
That hatred we feel toward our own sadness; that disgust we have toward our anger, and all those narratives we form that rationalize or criticize our other narratives, they all start to fade. When they’re gone, then anger is just anger; sadness is just sadness. Also, peace is just peace, and happiness is just happiness. There’s no commentary to it, no buffer or barrier between me and my world. When I’m sad, I’m just sad—I don’t feel anything further about it.
Sometimes there are oceans of sadness, a depth of sorrow that seems far more real and far older than I am, and yet there it is, washing through my mind. There are also oceans of joy, amber waters untouched by all traces of decay.
Maybe they’ll fade too, over time, as non-acceptance packs up and sets out. On another note, “It’s okay,” doesn’t mean, “Just lay back and let life brutalize you.” It means we aren’t resisting our humanity—that isn’t the same thing as not resisting anything in general. Radical acceptance isn’t acquiescence. I can accept the way things are, but at the same time, work my damnedest to change them for the better.
How? Because just as we can accept things as they are, we can also accept that, “Wanting them to be otherwise,” is also part of the way things are. If it wasn’t, then it wouldn’t be. Whatever is, is. The only transgression is in looking away. Acceptance isn’t going to make you a Buddha, but it’ll make sure that you’re the best Mara that you can be.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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